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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Ran; Kagemusha



Ran” (Blu-Ray) (Four Stars)
Japan; Akira Kurosawa, 1985 (Lions Gate)


Akira Kurosawa’s lavish and violent epic Ran, inspired by “King Lear,” is one of the most famous and admired of all Shakespearean films. Most aficianados rank it at or near the top of the Bard’s film canon, even though Ran dispenses with the main element that makes Shakespeare so great and imperishable, jettisoning all of the bard’s British poetry (substituting a spare Japanese translation), along with a good deal of the play’s brilliant plot and unforgettable characters.

No “How sharper than a serpent‘s tooth…“  No “As flies to wanton boys…“ No “Out vile Jelly!“ This is Shakespeare stripped almost to the bleak, minimalist bones of the mad king’s tragedy — reduced to a lean, brutal tale of a reckless monarch, who disinherits his most loyal son (rather than daughter), elevates the others and is repaid with persecution and banishment to the wind and the rain with his last attendant, his faithful Fool.

Yet Ran (which means “Chaos”) is  ornamented with such lush period settings, and expanded with such vast bloody battles raging under a stormy sky, that the sufferings and wickedness, and occasional flashes of kindness, in the story smite us with redoubled force, before becoming  dwarfed in the immensity of Kurosawa’s medieval landscapes, almost lost under that towering gray sky.

Tatsuya Nakadai — whose first appearance for Kurosawa was in Seven Samurai, in the wordless part of a swaggering young samurai, one not picked as one of the seven —  here plays Lear as a tragic, demented vision out of both Shakespeare and Japanese Noh drama, a wild, white-bearded monarch now repaid for the violence he has inflicted on his enemies and his subjects, by the faithlessness of his own chosen heirs and by the seeming icy indifference of the world around him. Nakadai turns Lear (or Lord Hidetora Ichimonji, as he’s called here) into a gnarled tragic woodcut, a human version of Edvard Munch’s tortured painting “The Scream.“

The Fool is mimed and played by the transvestite performer Peter, and Lady Kaede, the most evil of all Lord Hidetora’s daughters-in-law, is indelibly impersonated by Mieko Harada. The other actors include Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu and Daisuke Ryu as the Ichimonji brothers. The nerve-rending music is by the peerless Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu. And an old friend of Kurosawa’s was the assistant director on the battle scenes: Ishiro Honda, the science fiction directorial master of  the “Godzilla” and “Mothra” monster movies.

“Ran lacks much of the lusty boisterous quality of Kurosawa’s great ’50s and ‘6os battle epics, Seven Samurai,” The Hidden Fortress and Yojimbo — and even of his other Shakespearean film (based on “Macbeth”), Throne of Blood.  But there are many compensations. It is a beautifully crafted, truly tragic film, a portrait not just of a man plunging toward grief and insanity, but of a whole universe teetering on chaos. When the darkness descends here, it falls in a way, on all mankind as well as on Lear. According to Kurosawa, he intended Ran to be a parable of the overwhelming fear and  omnipresent threat of annihilation in the nuclear age. (In Japanese with English subtitles.)

KAGEMUSHA (Four Stars)
Japan; Akira Kurosawa, 1980   (Criterion Classics)


One of the great aKIRA Kurosawa   period action epics, this sixteenth century saga of a condemned thief   (Tatsuya Nakadai) who masquerades as a dead warlord, at the behest of the dead   man’s wily courtiers, is at once a canny political parable, an engrossing   psychological drama and a stunning adventure in the tradition of Kurosawa’s  Yojimbo, Seven Samurai and Ran. It’s full of the usual    ferocious Kurosawa action and spectacle, and the last battle scene is  hair-raising.
Nakadai, a last minute   replacement for Shintaro Katsu (the star of the “Zatoichi“ series, who proved  demanding and difficult), gives one of his best performances: a portrait of a man elevated  to phony grandeur, transformed by his deception, and lost in a world of   betrayal and bloodshed. Kagemusha  is a  magnificent later work by one of the greatest international filmmakers,  It  shows us life in chaos from the viewpoint of a   desperate charlatan, an outlaw accidentally trapped in the halls of power.   With Tsutomu Yamasaki, and Kenichi Hagiwara. (In Japanese, with English   subtitles.)

 Extras: Commentary by Stephen Prince; “Making of” documentary;  George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola discuss Kruosawa; Image: Kurosawa’s Continuity, a video  piece on Kurosawa”s own paintings and skethces for Kagemusha; Kurosawa Suntory whiskey commercials;  Kurosawa storyboards; Trailers and teasers. 


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2 Responses to “Wilmington on DVDs: Ran; Kagemusha”

  1. Charles Brown says:

    Nice review, but the movie is far better than the review would make you believe. The attack on the third castle (especially the 5 minute silent segment) may be the greatest scenario in the history of cinema. How those Bozos who vote in the Sight and Sound poll could have left Ran off the list of the greatest 250 movies of all time (and included way too many films by the grossly overrated Godard) is beyond my comprehension. CRB aka Wotan

  2. marklosangeles says:

    4 stars for RAN??? 4 stars????
    One of the greatest films ever made.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon